How to Protect a Child With Autism From Sexual Abuse
Each day children wake up and get ready to attend school. During that process, every parent expects that their child will arrive back home in the same condition as when he/she left. Current estimates suggest that 1:3 girls and 1:10 boys will be sexually abused by the time they are 18 years old (Tang, Freyd, & Wang, 2007).
In addition, Mansell, Sobsey and Moskal (1998) note that the rates of sexual abuse for children with developmental disabilities are nearly two times greater than for typical children. So, how can a parent with a child with autism ensure a child’s safety while at school or when traveling from home to school and then back again at the end of the day? Here are 10 tips to consider when attempting to ensure the safety of your own children with autism from sexual abuse and predators.
Use Adult Language
Some children with autism may be unfamiliar with the correct terms to use when describing their own bodies. While the conversation with children about “proper names” for body parts may feel uncomfortable for parents, it is essential for children with autism. Using proper terminology will allow children to express themselves fully if they are feeling uncomfortable or violated. Using “baby language” may cause confusion as to the meaning of what you are talking about if you need to approach your own child about whether or not he/she has been touched inappropriately.
Don`t assume that your child with autism knows the difference between a “good touch” and a “bad touch.” Many parents use the example of a one-piece bathing suit for a girl and a pair of swimming trunks for a boy to help indicate the areas of their bodies that no one should be touching. This example in combination with using proper terminology may assist a parent with quickly identifying if their child may have been involved in an inappropriate situation.
How To Identify and Respond
For many adults, it can be difficult to identify which individuals are “safe” and which are “unsafe.” Imagine the confusion that this may also cause for students with autism. Parents need to give consistent examples of what to look for. Children with autism need to understand that it may not be a physical characteristic that identifies a predator but rather his/her actions.
For example, individuals who want them to get in their car, offer them money or candy to go with them, those who want them to take off their clothes or want to take pictures of them, or want to invite them inside their home without their parents’ knowledge. Consistently reviewing these scenarios will help your child with autism to generalize the information being discussed in th home out into other environments.
It will also be important that parents explain and practice with their children how to respond when someone approaches them inappropriately. Many children view adults as authority figures and will feel awkward telling them “No!” As a parent, you need to reassure your child on the spectrum that it is absolutely alright for them to get loud and say “No!” to someone that is making them uncomfortable.
What Is a Secret?
An abuser may tell a child with autism to keep their relationship a secret. A child may feel that he/she isn’t being a “good friend” if this “secret” is shared with his/her parents and may not want to get the abuser in “trouble.” Some abusers will also threaten to hurt his/her parents or siblings if the child tells anyone what is happening. This may cause further confusion on the part of the victim. Having open communication with your child with autism may assist with reducing some of this stress.
General Safety Rules
There are a few simple rules to follow that could assist with keeping your child safe at school as well as when traveling between home and school. Children with autism who need to travel back and forth to school should always walk with either their siblings, a friend, or with a parent. Being alone makes them vulnerable and unsafe.
The same is true for them understanding that they should always have their cell phone with them in the case of an emergency or to simply inform their parents of their location of who they are playing with. If supervision after school is an issue, parents could consider keeping their child busy with an extra-curricular activity such as sports, music, drama, etc. It is also a good idea for the parents to get involved with their child in these activities so they can keep an eye on what may be going on.
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It is important for you to practice “safe places” with your child with autism. The more you practice, the more likely he/she is to utilize these skills during an emergency. If your child feels unsafe, can he/she identify five places to go for assistance that would be safe? Safe places could vary depending on the child and his/her family. Safe places could include a neighbor’s house, the school, a local church, the YMCA, or even a store.
A lot of time and energy is spent trying to teach children with autism who the unsafe people are. It is equally important for them to be able to identify who the “safe” people are in the community. Again, this may differ for each child, but some examples could include: parents, grandparents, siblings, neighbors, the police, a school teacher, a school bus driver or even a minister. Knowing who these people are can assist the child in locating the right person to help when needed.
Some children with autism who have become victims of sexual abuse may suddenly develop a dislike for a certain individual. A child may indicate he/she does not want to visit that person anymore—go out of his/her way to avoid being around that person. Even children with autism who are non-verbal may develop certain behavioral characteristics such as whining or crying or even self-injuring in the presence of a certain individual.
The child may have a sudden appetite change in their routine such as: eating too much or not eating enough. Sleep patterns may become disruptive, or the child may have reoccurring nightmares. Bed wetting or losing control of the bowels may suddenly occur.
All children are vulnerable to dangerous situations. However, children with autism may be even more vulnerable. They may encounter communication challenges that may make them particularly desirable targets of sexual offenders because of the perception that they would be unable to disclose the abuse (Edelson, 2016).
Research indicates that up to 50 percent of children with autism are functionally nonverbal (APA, 2000). As parents, you know your child best. Remember that all behavior is “communication.” Listen carefully to your child with autism and keep the lines of communication open and direct
Make a Report to Law Enforcement
Many parents are horrified and overwhelmed to discover when someone has harmed their child. Years ago, many of us worked with children on the “stranger danger” concepts. However, what we have found in many situations is that the abuser may be known to your child. Goldman (1994) cites evidence that over 50 percent of offenders of individuals with developmental disabilities had contact with their victims through some type of disability services with which they were involved.
While your first reaction to discovering abuse of your own child may be to either comfort your child immediately or attempt to go out in the community and harm the person that has hurt your child; you need to take a quick breath, collect yourself and call the police. It is important that this type of abuse and situation be reported immediately to the police. Your child may not be the only victim, and the police are trained in how to properly handle this kind of situation.
Get Professional Help
If your child with autism becomes a victim of sexual abuse, it is important for you to seek professional help. As a parent, the most important thing you can say to your child is that “It was NOT your fault and I’m so PROUD of you for coming to me and telling me what was happening.” A professional counselor or social worker with a background in autism would be a great option as the child works through this type of abuse.
Keeping all children safe from sexual assault and abuse should be a goal we all work towards.
American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, text revised. Washington, DC: Author.
Edelson, M.G. (2016). Sexual Abuse of Children with Autism: factors that Increase Risk and Interfere with Recognition of Abuse. Disability Studies Quarterly, 36, 1-16.
Goldman, R.L. (1994). Children and youth with intellectual disabilities: Targets for sexual abuse. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 41, 89-102.
Mansell, S., Sobsey, D., & Moskal, R. (1998). Clinical findings among sexually abused children with and without developmental disabilities. Mental Retardation, 36, 12-22.
Tang, S.S.S., Freyd, J.J., & Wang, M. (2007). What do we know about gender in the disclosure of child sexual abuse? Journal of Psychological Trauma, 6, 1-26.
This article was featured in Issue 88 – Knowledge is Power